The Mighty Algorithm, pt. 1: Some History

The algorithm. It’s a hot topic these days and there’s a lot to say about it. Algorithms affect nearly every part of our lives today, and they’re only going to get more pervasive in the years to come. This brief series gives a little background into algorithm history, explores how algorithms are being used, and provides some tips on how we can monitor their influence on our decision making.

First, what the heck is an algorithm?

At first glance, algorithm seems to be a pretty boring word. Traditionally belonging to the realm of mathematicians and scientists, it’s a Latinized form of the popular 9th century Persian mathematician and scholar Muhammad al-Khwarizmi, himself named after a region in modern-day Uzbekistan. For centuries his name was associated with numbers, and when his name became mixed with the Greek word for number (arithmos), the modern word algorithm was born. The word is broadly defined as a set of rules for solving a problem or making a decision. Sounds useful and harmless. So what’s the big deal? Why are terms like algorithmic accountability in the news today? What does a Persian mathematician have to do with my Facebook news feed or what shows Netflix recommends to me?

The Rise of Computers

To understand how algorithms became such a big thing, it helps to look at the rise of computing in general. Here I condense two hundred years of computer history into two paragraphs. Ready? Mechanical aids and the desire to automate where possible have been part of civilization since the ancient Greeks. In the 19th century, fueled by the industrial revolution, engineers began to produce programmable analog computers with mechanical parts that could be used for navigational computation such as predicting the tides or guiding torpedoes on submarines. By the early 20th century, analog computers slowly gave way to fully automatic digital computers with electronic circuits. Originally designed and used only by military, government, and academic institutions, computers became commercially available by the 1950s. From there, with the rise of integrated circuits and microprocessors, it was only a matter of time before the age of personal computing would begin in earnest in the late 1970s, fueled by the utopian belief that computers belonged in the hands of individuals instead of corporations and governments and that the personal computer would usher in a new era of freedom and community. Indeed, one of Apple’s earliest television ads introducing the Macintosh computer captured the spirit of this idea, showing a young woman throwing a sledgehammer into a screen depicting a totalitarian society.

As the number of computers in operation grew, so too did the number of connections and networks to share a growing amount of data. By 1990, the first web browser was introduced, giving users a central place to access and share information. Soon, computer scientists and entrepreneurs would see a pressing need not just to better organize the world wide web but to personalize it for computer users too. Using algorithms, a set of rules could be applied to content based on user data to produce a personalized experience of the web. But what began as a helpful tool for managing data and making it useful to us has slowly morphed into a powerful and influential method of behavior-shaping that may endanger our identity as human beings.

Invisible Force

Today, algorithms are employed behind the scenes to govern web searches, social media feeds, entertainment platforms, city crime maps, dating sites, trading floors, human resource departments, online retail, banking, insurance risk assessments, and much more. Reliance on these algorithms also means reliance on the programmers and companies that create them. Being subject to the whims and priorities of a for-profit company that is guided by a worldview and mission that isn’t necessarily our own can erode our identity over time. One day, we may wake up to find we have more in common with the brainwashed citizenry of the totalitarian society depicted in Apple’s 1984 computer ad than with the fearless, vibrant young lady who runs in to crash the party.

In part 2 of this short series on algorithms, I’ll take a closer look at how algorithms govern many of our daily decisions and what we can do to keep these mighty tools in check.



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